Our Findings

What does it mean to be an autistic person with sensory processing difficulties?
How do sensory aspects of an environment impact autistic people?
How can we help people learn about what sensory processing difficulties are like?

We decided to learn the answers to these questions in three different ways. in 2021 we invited autistic adults to be involved in a series of online focus groups and to answer a range of questions on social media. We have also worked with staff at a special school to learn more about how sensory processing difficulties can affect autistic children’s experiences of public spaces such as supermarkets and restaurants. We will be using these results to create an immersive event in 2022 to help people learn more about sensory processing differences in a creative and interesting way.


Findings from our Focus Groups

Over 2021 we ran seven online focus groups to explore what autistic people think about public spaces. In these groups we wanted to learn more about the sensory aspects of of places such as supermarkets and what people thought made certain locations more or less enabling than others.

In the first set of focus groups we focused on learning about which locations people find easier or more challenging. Then in the second set of focus groups we asked people to explore the most commonly identified locations in more detail. After the focus had finished, we discussed the results we found with a feedback group of autistic people who helped us to refine the themes and ideas we found.

We have split our results into two sections, which explore both the locations that people find more challenging as well as what themes or principles seem to make certain spaces easier or harder than others. Each of these sections have a set of questions for businesses or organisations to help you start to think about adaptations that could support autistic people in different locations.

Principles of Sensory Environments

circle split into six sections each in cool yellow and blue tones. Each section has a different title: sensoryscape, space, predictability, understanding, adjustments and recovery.

We used a process called reflexive thematic analysis to analyse what people told us in our focus groups. We identified 6 themes and 15 subthemes or principles that could make different locations easier or more difficult to visit. People also identified that these can often overlap with one another. Each of our different themes contains questions to consider for business owners/organisations about ways they could make their spaces more autism friendly. Learn more on our page about the principles of sensory environments.

Challenging Locations

We used an approach called content analysis to identify which locations people regularly identify as being more challenging than others. Our focus groups identified a range of different locations. The five most common locations were supermakets, eateries (restaurants and cafés), high streets and town/city centres, public transport, and healthcare settings (e.g. GP surgeries and hospitals). Learn more on our page on the different challenging locations we identified.

Findings from Social Media Posts

On our social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, we asked people a range of questions about what locations they find easier or more difficult and why. We also asked people to tell us about specific locations that people have reported can be challenging such as supermarkets and healthcare settings.

Principles of Sensory Environments

We wanted to learn whether the themes we identified in the focus groups were similar or different to what people reported in replies to our social media posts. We used a process called reflexive thematic analysis to review the data. We found that while not every subtheme was represented in detail, people discussed each of the different themes such as the lack of space in many public places and the challenges caused by a location’s unpredictability. Learn more at our page comparing each of the themes identified in the focus groups.

Accessible and Disabling Locations

We used content analysis to explore which locations people commonly identified as being either accessible or more challenging. We wanted to find out which locations were often easier or more difficult to manage and investigate whether these were the same as what we found in our focus groups. Learn more on our page comparing those identified in the social media posts and in our focus groups.

What do autistic people want neurotypical people to learn?

On our social media posts, people identified that there are a range of areas that they feel business owners and neurotypical people misunderstand about autism and sensory processing. These include the variability of sensory processing difficulties and the negative impacts that more difficult sensory environments can have on an individual. Learn more on our page on what autistic people want neurotypical people and businesses to learn about sensory processing difficulties in public spaces.

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